Book Review: East to the Dawn (1997)

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Published on: 2010.07.29

Title: East to the Dawn
Author: Susan Butler
Subject: the life of Amelia Earhart
Genre: biography
Publisher: Da Capo Press

I really enjoy biographies about people with whom I’m not familiar. Prior to reading this book, I knew only a few things about Amelia Earhart: (1) she was a famous pilot, (2) she worked for women’s rights, (3) she was lost at sea during an around-the-world flight. (For some reason, I’d always thought she went down over the Bermuda Triangle; this turned out to be completely imagined by me.)

Susan Butler has done an exemplary job of compiling new materials (including private family letters, diaries, and other interviews), thus improving greatly over old biographies. However, this led her to the book’s main fault, in my opinion. The author seemed so enthusiastic to show all these materials that she overquotes from them and often proves the same point multiple times.

A related fault seems to be with the editing. In multiple places throughout the book, Butler writes one statement only to repeat it on the next page, or a few pages later. Here is one example:

Page 103:
“Between them was a gulf that grew wider as they got to know each other better.”

Page 104:
“The gulf grew wider as they got to know each other better.”

Was that really necessary?

Also, there are several grammar mistakes in the book, things that should have been picked up by an editor. (“She was couldn’t do it part time” — page 302.)

The only other things that really bothered me about the book were the assumptions made by the author, and a few inconsistencies. It’s a biography, not a newspaper editorial. There should be no place for the author’s guesses about people’s thoughts or what “might have been.”

For example, on page 135:
“His dismay would have deepened if he had known that Amelia was laying the groundwork for a trip to California the following summer that did not include him.”

How do we know that his dismay would have deepened? Butler doesn’t explain this.

In another place (page 138), Butler says: “Boston is a small town, but in those days it was even smaller.” Yet Boston is the largest city in the state of Massachusetts. At the time of the writing, the city proper had a population of about 640,000 people, the 20th largest city in the United States. In the 1920s, Boston held even more people (750,000, according to the U.S. census).

On page 146, Butler describes Mabel Boll, saying in one sentence “She … claimed to be an heiress,” but in the next sentence, Boll was “…totally without pretense…” If you’re claiming to be an heiress when you’re not, then you cannot also be totally without pretense.

However noticeable these errors were to me, they did seem to smooth out as the book went along. It gave me the impression that the later part of the story was written first and thus was worked over more often and became more perfect.

The biography begins as it should have, by detailing the history of Earhart’s family. In other biographies, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of early information. Butler skillfully describes Earhart’s immediate ancestors and helps the reader understand the times. She spends many pages on Earhart’s childhood and adolescence, giving the reader a more complete picture of this fantastic woman.

Later, the details are even more outstanding. Earhart’s record-breaking flights are described intricately, especially her final attempt to fly completely around the world.

The ending of the book is as heart-breaking as Earhart’s life.

“It is hard … to lose a major icon so abruptly, so inconclusively, and it is so tempting to try to write another ending to the grand adventure.”

For the sheer volume of information, and because of Earhart’s fantastic achievements, I do recommend this book.

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